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article imageEssential Science: Learn about the new field of neurogastronomy

By Tim Sandle     Jan 11, 2016 in Science
Scientists aand chefs might appear as an unlikely combination, but representatives from each profession are working together within a new scientific field called neurogastronomy. The research area attempts to find out how the brain interprets flavor.
The research into neurogastronomy is not about creating wonderful sensory food experiences (this is something different called 'molecular gastronomy'); neurogastronomy is about improving health (so people can enjoy something most of us take for granted) and potentially saving lives (through links between the loss of the sense of smell and neurodegenerative diseases.)
The health area is about enjoying and experiencing food. What most consider to be taste, key to appreciating or disliking the food we eat, has less to do with regions of the tongue and more to do with smell. Some estimates put the contribution that smell makes to "taste" as high as 90 percent.
Taste stripped back simply to what the tongue detects is about differentiating chemicals. These are divided into five primary types: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or the recently discovered umami taste (umami is means “savory”.) For people who lack a sense of smell, when they eat food the experience is relatively limited and it falls within these core categories.
However, for the majority of the population, it is the interaction between the senses of taste and the smells that come from the food that together enhance our perceptions of the foods we eat. For foods that we particularly enjoy, it is the interaction between taste and smell that make the experience what it is.
A useful experiment is to eat a flavored jellybean while holding your nose. Mid-way through chewing on the sweet, if you open your nose the full flavor is then revealed. The reason is, as Tom Finger, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver Medical School, told Laboratory Roots, when we chew we force air through our nasal passages. This process carries the smell of the food with it. Without this interplay of taste and smell, we are unable to interpret complex flavors.
Taste itself is not quite as simple as every flavor being squeezed into five categories. Many biologists think there are genetic differences in taste between people and these difference may influence what we eat; and, more importantly, why some people overeat. While this is interesting, it is smell that is the focus of attention today.
When someone loses their sense of smell, the effects are dramatic, especially on eating. Food ceases to taste as good. It can also affect relationships as people no longer detect the scents of their partners (while this may not seem like much, subconsciously we're continually picking up scent clues from those around us.)
Other research suggests that because smell is connected with memory, and memory loss is a symptom of the development of a neurodegenerative disease, then there may be a connection with the loss of the sense of smell with the formation of diseases like Alzheimer's. Back in 2013, Digital Journal reported on an interesting and inexpensive peanut-butter smell test that can help diagnose the neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer’s in its early stages.
Moreover, traumatic brain injury, stroke, epilepsy, cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases can each interfere with smell and taste.
To look into these issues further, medical website Biotechniques reports, the International Society of Neurogastronomy (ISN) has been formed. The ISN held its first symposium at the University of Kentucky in November 2015. Here the remit of the society was established: "to advance Neurogastronomy as a craft, science, and health profession, to enhance quality of human life, and to generate and disseminate knowledge of brain-behavior relationships in the context of gastronomy."
The society aims to understand how flavors and odors are interpreted in the brain. In the longer-term, the ISS hope to build up a research base that leads to an improvement with the lives of people who have lost their sense of taste or smell.
The founder of the society was the man credited with coining the phrase neurogastonomy. This is Dr. Gordon Shepherd, who is a professor of neurobiology at Yale University. Dr. Shephered first used the term in 2006 in an article in the science journal Nature, and in a book titled "Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters."
While research remain a key part of the ISN; more novel ways to engage with the general public are being made. Dr. Dan Han and other neuroscientists have reached out to chefs and food scientists to find ways to experiment with neurobiology and food together, in order to help those who have lost their sense of smell. In particular these is an interest with those who are experiencing conditions like cancer, stroke, and brain injury, to see if they can gain partial or complete sensory recovery.
A chef called Edward Lee, who attended the inaugural ISN event, explained to National Geographic: "You know,we have food industry companies who study how our brains are affected by flavors; the sweet, the salty,” Lee said. “But they study those things for their own benefit—to learn how to better sell their product. I think the main thing that will come out of this field, and the main thing that came out of the ISN symposium, was the desire to use that knowledge for the good of the patient.”
As an example of research in the field, biologists have identified a gene that turns on only in olfactory neurons. This led to the development of a laboratory assay to identify the sets of odor receptors in humans. This may provided the basis for enhancing the flavors of certain foods or blocking out bad smells. This novel research is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, in a paper headed "Molecular profiling of activated olfactory neurons identifies odorant receptors for odors in vivo."
While neurogastronomy is at an early stage in the establishment of a scientfic field, it is already starting to produce significant research and the potential applications for assisting people who have lost their sense of smell, especially through illness, and with investigating neurodegenerative diseases, are very significant.
This article is part of Digital Journal's Essential Science series. Other articles in the series are "Space-food for astronauts made from bacteria"; "Health effects of antibiotic use"; "Graphene makes improved night vision tech"; "Personalized medicines, the health innovation”; “Power paper can store electricity”; "Why some rainbows are completely red"; "Bright white light affects animal reproduction"; and "Low cost device restores speech to patients."
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